Thursday, April 25, 2019

Stray Bits

No overarching point this time. Just two disconnected comments on some good recent reading, beginning with The Early Baroque Era from the Music and Society series. I mentioned last year that I was hoping this volume would be better than the one on the Renaissance, and my hope was fulfilled. For instance, in the best chapter, on music in London in the early seventeenth century, I learned that music was similar all over England since the nobility that hired the composers and players moved frequently back and forth between city and country, that boys in the Chapel Royal or other large church choirs were given admission to university when their voices broke, and that John Playford – the Mel Bay of his era – took advantage of unwatched legal loopholes to publish books on music theory and on how to play various instruments even while the Puritan Parliament was outlawing theater music and smashing organs as “superstitious monuments.” Personal details such as these are exactly the type I look for in this new style of music history, focusing as it does not on the composers still famous to us today but on music as experienced by laborers, shopkeepers, politicians, aristocrats, clergy, teachers, and teenagers. When I was in school, music history of the late Baroque era centered on the two titanic figures of Handel and Bach, so let’s hope that the volume I read next year resists the temptation and dwells instead mostly on mortals.

Now Disraeli’s Coningsby. I loved the first third of the novel, while Coningsby is growing up, and the last third, while Coningsby is falling in love. But I had difficulty in the middle third, which concentrated on Disraeli’s special area of expertise: politics. If the beginning reminded me of Dickens and the end made me think of Austen, I might have guessed that the parallels between the heart of the book and the parliamentary novels of another of my favorites – Anthony Trollope – might have portended greater enjoyment on my part. But maybe Disraeli was too close to his subject. Unfortunately, he assumes his readers know the details of British political history in the years just before the novel, a fair assumption to make about the first generation to become acquainted with the book. But when he complains about the “Arch-Mediocrity” without naming him, I find it difficult 180 years later and an ocean away to appreciate his concern. I can look it up and find that he had Lord Liverpool in mind, but that doesn’t help me feel what Disraeli wants me to feel about the drama that unfolds in the central chapters of the novel. Still, I can’t imagine any of our current American politicians writing a novel so eloquently and sensitively exploring the human heart while coming of age, and I’m eager for Tancred in year 10 of my current Plan.

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